AI News, Interview: Ken Goldberg Discusses Telerobots, Androids, and Heidegger

Interview: Ken Goldberg Discusses Telerobots, Androids, and Heidegger

This year we saw an invasion of telepresence robots—electromechanical avatars that allow you to be there without actually being there.

I’ve tested two of the robots myself, discussing at length their technical merits as well as their practical shortcomings, and even helped a colleague build his own robotic self.

Although the technology behind these robots is fascinating, I’m also interested in the historical and philosophical aspects of telepresence.

The advent of robotic telepresence also reflects a moment in time when many of us are becoming ever more connected and available.

To explore these themes, I spoke with Ken Goldberg, a robotics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of IEEESpectrum’s editorial advisory board.

When he’s not building robot cameras to spot wild birds or computer-controlled flexible needles that steer through soft tissue, he’s delving into the interactions between technology, art, and media.

When you add legs or arms, you need more actuators, more sensors, more computation, and it gets expensive very fast.

I think it was Brian Carlisle [former CEO of Adept Technology], who said that if you can sell a car, which is a lot of metal and a lot of engineering together, for under 10,000 dollars, we should be able to do the same for robots.

Rovio [a home robot sold by WowWee] is small, so you probably can’t have an eye to eye conversation, unless you want to talk to your kids.

The idea of remote control, that you can click a button here and something happens over there, is a very powerful and satisfying experience.

In 2001 you edited a collection of essays titled, “The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet.” One of the articles, by John Canny and Eric Paulos, describes a telepresence robot [image, right] very similar to the commercial versions we’re seeing today.

Back then when people like John Canny and Eric Paulos were developing various kinds of telerobots and camera systems, the Internet and wireless networks weren’t as fast and reliable as they are today.

The other thing that has changed is that it’s less expensive to build a robot today, because the components you need are getting better and cheaper.

The big question is, When can they get the price down to a point where it’s available to a large number of people?

We want to give students, many of whom will be creators of technology, a broader historical and social perspective to understand technology.

So, in a nutshell, what Heidegger says in this essay is that technology is really a “mode of being,” a sort of attitude or culture we are immersed in.

Rather than approaching the river as primitives, who might ponder how the gods created the river, or artists and poets, who would focus on the beauty of the river, our approach is that the river is a resource to generate power.

The key thing that Heidegger hints at and he worries about is that this worldview, if it continues in the direction it’s going, will overwhelm us, and then we’ll do the same thing to ourselves: We’ll see ourselves as resources.

At the end of the essay he comes to this point where he sees this supreme danger, when we’ll be engulfed and overwhelmed and we’ll want to make ourselves constantly available.

As we move closer to being consumed by this technology mode of being, the positive outcome is that we’ll be jolted into realizing what we’re doing and we’ll have the capability of stepping out of it.

Almost ten years ago, you participated in a telepresence research project called the Teleactor, using people as proxies for other people.

Imagine you hire out-of-work actors, who love to engage with strangers, and send them as teleactors to parties and events.

With these robots, just like a portrait or statue or other replica, you’ll be able to have something that conceivably could live beyond your existence.